Challenges of Studying Neijing

The classical language of Neijing presents many complications. I wrote a blog piece recently about the challenge of determining if a particular phrase refers to the macrocosm or microcosm. Another ubiquitous challenge is that classical Chinese has no punctuation — that’s a big one, and I’ll write about it more in the future. Yet, in addition to these challenges peculiar to the difficult and foreign language of the text, Neijing includes common ambiguity in the attribution of pronouns. In some passages, simple vagueness introduces diverging meanings, including multiple streams of interpretation. These “Type 3” conundrums each have an obvious reading, but those interpretations express only a superficial layer of meaning. What else might there be?

The deepest meanings of Neijing are available only to those who know how and where to look for them, and how to recognize the classic’s theory in its sometimes ambiguous language. How would one know to recognize such layers of meaning in the text’s strings of characters? I suggest the written text, which until the tenth or eleventh centuries a student had to copy by hand from his teacher’s copy, was originally intended as ongoing inspiration for those who had already been initiated into its subtle and dynamic worldview. Thus, the written text is only a portion of the teaching; the more important portion of the teaching is a schema for interpreting and applying its language, built on practical knowledge based in experience working with the dynamics of the Dao within the microcosm of individual life.

Some of the classic’s most profound conundrums were styled with very simple language like “其 (),” which is just a pronoun that means “its” or “their.” Chapter 52 of Lingshu provides a good example. It begins (my translation, implied punctuation added by sinologists):


The Yellow Emperor said:
The five zàng are where the embodied spirit and hún-pò are treasured.
The six are where water and grains are received, and consequently substances are moved and transformed.
Their [moves toward] the inside into the five zàng, and outside it connects with the limbs and joints.
Their surface , which does not follow the channels, it constitutes wèi qì.
Their refined , which moves into the channels, it constitutes yíng qì.

Notice the character “其 ()” begins each of the last three lines quoted above. So, what is its reference? By far the most common “literary reading” of these lines interprets it as “the person’s…” or “the body’s…” This interpretation is very common throughout Neijing, it makes good sense here, and it reinforces very basic theory — concerning the locations of the five zàng and the limbs and joints, and the locations and nature of wèi qì and yíng qì. There’s no problem with any of those meanings, and indeed Sabine suggested one of those wordings to me as a more clear translation for this passage. However, perhaps the three uses of 其 () in this  chapter were purposely ambiguous; I chose to preserve that ambiguity to suggest the possibility of multiple streams of meaning. In this case, I believe the ‘deeper meaning’ of 其 () refers back to the six .

This ‘alternate’ interpretation of these last three lines places the six between the five zàng and the outside structures of the limbs and joints, which is slightly more detailed than the other interpretation. However, it is not particularly new or inspiring. However, the next two lines suggest that the surface of the six is the wèi qì, and that their refined (or essence) is the yíng qì. That is far more interesting! The fifth line relates the six with the internal sinews, which communicate with the external sinews. The sixth line recognizes that the six are responsible for refining the water and grains they receive into the  that flows inside the channels — the yíng qì, which is clearly characterized as the refined product of what the individual ingests. Combined with the third line (above), which says the six are responsible for transforming the water and grains they receive, this is a substantial divergence from modern TCM theory, where this function is attributed to the spleen’s .

Okay, so this passage may introduce some new theory. Is that important? Does it introduce anything other than confusion? The relationship between the six and the sinews in the fifth line is very important clinically, as it highlights how closely related are the flows of the internal and external sinews. This line can fundamentally deepens one’s understanding of wèi qì. The sixth line enriches the theory of Chinese medicine, by differentiating more clearly than modern TCM between the functions of the six and five zàng. And, all of this rich theory is hidden in plain sight — available only to someone initiated into the teachings!



IVAS Rocks!

Thank you all for a wonderful 37th annual conference!

A special thank you to Vikki Weber, executive director of IVAS (International Veterinary Acupuncture Society). It appears that I’ve finally been discovered for my unique contributions to the field of Chinese medicine. Is it strange that these enthusiastic doctors are Veterinarians, and that I’ve never treated a non-human animal? I thought so, and so did my sister-in-law! What do I know about treating canines, felines, equine, or other non-human patients? Very little, yet I was asked to give two four-hour Keynote presentations at the IVAS annual conference in San Diego in September. Why, you may ask?

Well… the local reason is that Vikki read an essay published by Golden Flower Chinese Herbs, who have sponsored my CEU classes for several years. That particular essay introduced the five systems of channels and vessels, and was re-published on this site. It discusses what I used to refer to as “the five systems of channels and  vessels,” and now call “channel complexes,” technically 經 絡 (jingluo). These jingluo provide a conceptual framework that differs from the much simpler modern clinical doctrine of zangfu (viscera and bowels) and primary channels. These channel complexes provide both theoretical and practical advantages, compared to the “standard” doctrine, and Vikki was willing to invite me as an honored guest to the IVAS conference, so her members could learn more about my thinking on Chinese medicine. Filled with enthusiasm about her invitation, I proposed another idea in addition to reworking that essay into a presentation. When I received the contract to officially secure this opportunity, I learned that I’d have to submit essays of at least 6,000 words for each topic. GULP! Well, of course, I ‘bit the bullet’ and committed to writing those essays. It was a great process, and a lot of work!

The larger reason may be that many Veterinary acupuncturist are very cool people, who have “gone to the mountain, scaled it, and seen it’s limitations.”  They’ve all been trained in (western) medicine, yet they also recognize certain systematic weaknesses of that worldview and thinking process for health care. I knew I was among “my people” after I mentioned as back ground my education before I went to acupuncture school. I told them that I’d been in a PhD program at UC Berkeley for two years, where I studied how (western) science prejudices its understanding of the world based on how it asks questions and what it takes as evidence; there was a smattering of applause and a couple hoots. Imagine! They wanted to learn about the ‘weird’ worldview I’ve cultivated during nearly two decades of learning and practicing the Neijing-style of medicine as taught by Jeffrey Yuen.

So, find an acupuncturist for your pets, and you’ll find a doctor who is working to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both western and Chinese medicine. Actually, IVAS is even somewhat broader than that, as many of its members have interests in other approaches, such as osteopathy, Ayurveda, etc. What could be better?

Yeh, so why the delay in posting this blog piece?

It’s a funny thing about the internet — once we publish something, it’s PUBLISHED. I admit, I really don’t know how to think about this opportunity. Will people download a big essay, and engage me about the ideas discussed? Will they respect my attempt to discuss challenging ideas, or simply pick at my choice of language to my target my ideas as “not Chinese,” because they’re not discussed in the TCM they learned. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of flack for “embodied spirit,” though it’s my translation for 精 神 (jingshen), which is used extensively in Neijing. So, my ideas differ from the currently dominant doctrine. Are we going to be slaves to the historical forces that created the contemporary doctrine, assuming that newer must be better, or seek theory that is more coherent and incisive?

I’ve devoted many hundreds of hours to writing those papers, during seven months of very hard work — on top of my practice and teaching schedule early this year. They represent one attempt to discuss what I’ve learned over many years.  Am I likely to benefit by giving away that work, or am I simply forsaking the opportunity to publish those essay in some “better” venue? What is a better venue? How democratic has information become? How willing are individuals to evaluate information for themselves? For some odd reason, it didn’t make a lot of sense (to me) to post an announcement of that great event, without posting links to the papers I presented. Perhaps that’s really stupid, but it led me to on it. Instead, I focused my attention toward my primary interest, seeking  to articulate the wondrous world of classical Chinese medicine. I still don’t know the right answer to the question of how best to use this opportunity to publish my work, but I’ve decided to try something different. I’d REALLY like to hear thoughtful comments or questions from people who read these essays. Anyone interested in an Introduction to this approach to acupuncture?

Keynote Papers for the IVAS Conference (2011):

Living Systems of Acupuncture Channels

The World of Dao: Movement in Chinese Medicine


The Cost of Scientific Medicine

Many patients faced with serious illnesses seek the assurance that their practitioners are using proven healing methods. Many practitioners also seek the security that the therapies they use have been proven by scientific research. Yet, few ask the question:

What is this proof that so many seek, and what are its limitations?

In modern “scientific” medicine, the nearly ubiquitous standard of proof uses the methodology of “randomized, controlled and double-blind” experiments. While each of these features of medical research serves a clear and understandable role, they also limit researchers to studying substances and procedures that act on the mechanisms of life, rather than those that work with the individual blocks of the embodied spirit. Such remedies can’t cure disease; they can only manage and control it. Yet, in our modern society’s urgency for the security of proof, we’ve played this semantic game with our lives and convinced ourselves only experiments that conform to that methodology are “scientific.”

Classical Chinese medicine is actually MORE scientific than modern so-called “scientific” medicine. I make that bold assertion based on its willingness to investigate the true nature of life, rather than reducing it to a mechanistic model of the individual as a very complicated biochemical machine. Yet, few seem to recognize the severe limitations of the physical model of modern western medicine, perhaps because they’re distracted by its empirical form and the impressive technologies that serve it. Though medical researchers have developed:

  • sophisticated knowledge of the physical expression of disease, modern science frequently over-simplifies the issue of causation.
  • many pharmaceutical therapies that control the expression of disease, there are few that promote resolution.

The simple fact is that medical research seeks to serve the personality rather than the embodied spirit.

The efficacy of most therapies is measured by their ability to temporarily control symptoms and clinical signs. Little progress can be made by modern medical science toward reversing conditions that are considered progressive and degenerative, because that would require practitioners to discriminate  individual challenges and process. Helping patients reverse most chronic diseases requires that one treat the individual rather than the disease. In addition to the massive financial toll of modern scientific medicine, it has another greater cost. The true cost of scientific medicine is that it limits our efforts to:

controlling the expression of pathology, rather than individually probing its resolution.


Focus Health & Wellness Educational Symposium

While my domicile remains in Sonora, I haven’t been focused on the local community since closing the Healing Center of the Sierra several years ago. I’ve cut back my practice quite dramatically, so I could focus more intensively on my researches into classical Chinese medicine, and work on various writing projects. Some of those writings are archived on this site, others provide the foundation for seminars I’ve taught and am preparing. I’m working toward drafting a series of monographs; my current focus is the five systems of acupuncture channels, which provide the conceptual foundation for Neijing (Inner Classic) style acupuncture. Of course, it’s convenient that I’m also in the process of writing the handouts that I’ll provide for a four weekend seminar series that I’ll be teaching on the clinical application of those systems.

During the past couple years, a few friends suggested I join another in a long line of local groups aimed at gathering “like-minded people” to provide mutual support and focus attempts toward social change, either local and global. Often the groups I’ve gravitated toward have gathered around healing work or sustainability and green politics; in this case it seems to focus equally on both. Yet, I’m generally much more interested in my own philosophical and clinical investigations of Chinese medicine than I am in group process, so I continued in blissful ignorance of the progress of:

FoCuS — Foothill Collaborative for Sustainability

Yet, about a month ago Sheila Gradison asked me to participate in an Educational Symposium on March 19, 2010. I went to my first meeting about that event on Wed. (12/2), and found engaged and interesting people involved in various aspects of the “holistic health” field. We had a discussion about the topics each of us would like to address during that brief symposium, which touched on the topic of quantum physics (of all things!). I’m reminded that group process has its virtues, including stimulating clarification. After many years of reflecting on my work, that meeting stimulated me to write a few pages of comments on the foundations of Chinese medicine, which even leads many enthusiasts to invoke the results of experiments in quantum physics! My interest in this topic dates back to the beginning of my interest in Chinese medicine; I’m curious to see how others will connect with those ideas.

While quantum physics can be a valuable topic for holistic health practitioners who are attempting to engage (particularly “scientific”) members of the public, I believe it is ultimately a distraction. It can help pry open the minds of people set in their allegiance to mechanistic conceptual models of reality, but it also tends to invite people to enroll in it as the “right” conceptual model that explains how things work. People want so badly to feel in control of their world…

I believe the key point that most holistic health practitioners are trying to make in referring to quantum physics is that mechanistic “scientific” models do not provide the ultimate explanation of the world — that the world, especially the human world,  is much more complex and magical than most imagine. Some people believe quantum physics suggests that there is a consciousness expressed through the “physical” universe. Indeed, they’ve given one type of quark (subatomic particles) a suggestive name like “charm.” While such speculations may amuse us, why do we seek support for the idea that consciousness be included in our descriptions of individual human life from the outset?

Each individual is an embodied spirit. The first task of that embodied spirit is to survive in this world of constant polar interactions. The highest healing work facilitates that process, rather than controlling the expression of distress when there is something awry. We need to study that, and how to support it in disentangling from its blockages and stagnation. Natural medicine is far more (and less!) than the use of naturally occurring products. It is the process of facilitating an individual’s return to his or her own nature — to optimize it’s ability to live.


The Archeology of Disease

People develop progressive and degenerative diseases from stagnations that accumulate within the embodied spirit. We can tolerate those accumulations for some time, but eventually they impede or obstruct “normal” physiological process. Each embodied spirit is provided with an amazingly effective collection of “storage reservoirs” that allow them to adapt and adjust to pathogenic stagnations. (Technically, those reservoirs are called luo vessels, channel divergences, and several of the eight extraordinary vessels). They allow people to “move on” with life by storing pathogenic factors, when they are unable or unwilling to resolve them. However,

This process of storing unresolved pathogenic factors is a double-edged sword.

While storing unresolved pathogenic factors facilitates the individual’s personality in going on with life in the short-term, it also renders the diseases that eventually emerge more difficult to resolve. If we can resist the temptation to suspend the challenges and discomfort our unresolved pathogenic factors present, we can avoid burdening ourselves with such an immense project in the future, because

We can’t simply balance or control those diseases into resolution!

Instead, resolving most chronic progressive and degenerative diseases requires the willingness to dig through the layers of “unfinished business,” and unravel the entangled accumulations we’ve stored away. Healing is very much like Archeology, though in addition to digging through the layers (and documenting them), we are faced with the challenge of resolving the pathogenic factors stored in those layers. There are no “short-cuts” for the embodied spirit — if it hasn’t finished with some aspect of life process, it’s stored away to pile up. So, if we want to heal, we may as well get out our (metaphorical) shovels and start digging!


Some Treatments Are Plain as Day

Stagnant blood is the somatic version of unresolved emotional conflicts.

Who doesn’t have any of those? No attachment to having your way? Don’t think your way is the right way? Well, I don’t believe contemporary people come close to that stringent standard of spiritual liberation. We have too much apparent (temporal) power, and generally fail to differentiate clearly between what we can and can’t control. Yet, our embodied spirits also know they have to put those unresolved issues aside, so we can get on with life. Ever wonder where those finished issues go?

The embodied spirit uses its key function of embodiment to displace unresolved spiritual issues into the body.

Among a broader range of unresolved spiritual conflicts, emotional conflicts have specific “targets,” and are displaced into the blood. Chapter 10 of the Lingshu (Spiritual Axis) instructs that the embodied spirit stores such blood stagnation in the luo vessels, which that important chapter notes are the only visible acupuncture channels. Learning to diagnose and treat luo vessels is among the simplest ways to begin working with the channels (in contrast to the modern acupuncture approach, which focuses on specific points and point combinations).

[Note: Other spiritual conflicts (without clear targets) are often displaced into one or more vital fluids, and are stored in the channel divergences. These are not visible, and learning to treat them requires considerably more study. Learn more about the theory and clinical application of the channels and vessels.]

Treating luo vessels can assist the embodied spirit in moving blood stagnation out of the system

Often blood stagnation accumulates for years, before it eventually progresses into overt disease. While venting out that accumulation doesn’t actually change the underlying pathogenic process (of accumulating unresolved emotional conflict), it can substantially reduce the load. Since most luo vessels flow into the chest, their filling frequently compromises the axis of qi – in the chest. Thus, releasing stagnant blood facilitates the flow of all post-natal qi — the vital functions of life.

Each of the five systems of channels and vessels fills a key role in sustaining individual life

Each system of channels and vessels exhibits distinctive pathological processes, and responds to specific clinical procedures. The luo fill with stagnant blood (unfulfilled and somatized emotional conflict), until they overflow to empty back into the primary channels, which leads to a progression of pathology. A one-day study of the luo is included in the four weekend series of seminars on the systems of channels, which introduces Neijing style acupuncture.


Practicing Health Care

A few weeks ago, I taught a weekend continuing education seminar for acupuncturists on the channel divergences, which have central importance for both understanding and reversing progressive and degenerative disease. Early in that seminar, I posed the following question, which I believe lay deep in the soul of many health care practitioners:

Do you want to participate in the disease management industry or the art of healing?

Has the idealism to help others, which continues to inspire many young people to enter the health care fields, been overwhelmed by the “scientific” doctrines students must learn and later the practical challenges of making a living? While that idealism appears well beaten-down in most, I believe it continues to smolder in the hearts of many. Can we gently fan those embers with the knowledge that the healing potential of the embodied spirit dwarfs the efforts of scientific medicine to control the expression of pathology?

Modern medicine relies on fear.

Allopathic medicine portrays patients’ bodies as “broken” — in need of permanent physical repair through surgery or ongoing physiological control with pharmaceuticals. Yet, embodied spirits that exhibit various diseases aren’t broken; they’re simply congested with stagnation, which blocks the natural flow of vital function. The symptoms and signs of disease are a cry for help; they are the embodied spirit’s gesture to express the nature and extent of its distress.

While western medicine sets the tone for our health care system, most proponents of “natural” medicine conform to its passive care model. And why not? — it makes SO MUCH SENSE economically. What could be better than selling people on the need to take a certain supplement for the rest of their lives, or come for three treatments per week for the next six months? Excuse me while I price a new BMW.

Practicing Health Care is a Sacred Trust.

People come to health care practitioners with their pains and their fears. I believe our work challenges us to discern the sources of each individual’s suffering, and find ways to stimulate the transformations of healing. Often that takes more time initially than simply controlling the manifestations of distress, but careful work to discriminate an individual’s blocks to healing can pay substantial dividends. The financial value for both individuals and our society of empowering patients to resolve their ailments is enormous. The non-financial value is even greater!


Human Life: It’s NOT Just Physical

Each person is an embodied spirit, who lives through interacting with the world. Those interactions are polar, as individuals take in various influences from the world and release byproducts of their life process back out to the world. Breathing is one such interaction; it provides the source of Being. Each individual’s Quest for food and drink motivate the other key physical interaction. [For more on the Chinese medical framework for understanding the vital transactions of life, see my essay “Managing the Internal Economy.”]

In addition to these physical interactions, individuals internalize and digest their experiences in life. Classical Chinese medical theory suggests that these experiential interactions are even more fundamental than physical ones in the development of each individual’s eventual challenges with disease.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, Except When it Comes to Human Health.

Modern medical technologies are truly amazing! MRIs and CT scans generate accurate and detailed visual images of the inside of an individual patient’s body. What could be better for helping a medical practitioner diagnose a patient’s ailment and discern what treatment(s) are necessary? It’s SO obvious; it must be true. Mustn’t it?

During the past twenty years, medical researchers have done several research studies using MRIs or CT scans on the relationship between physical lesions around the spine and clinical back pain, including pains that “radiate” from the spine into the extremities. That research has uniformly shown there is AMAZINGLY poor correlation between those “obviously” related issues. That is:

  • A fairly large portion of people with apparently serious lesions (including disc bulges or herniations) had mild back pain or dysfunction.
  • Another fairly large portion of people with small lesions had severe pain, which was sometimes debilitating.
  • It’s also fairly common that people have physical lesions in one location, and pain in another. That might be on the other side, or even a different level of the spine.

What’s up with that? I don’t believe modern (western) medicine has an explanation, yet my work with classical Chinese medicine is not affected by such anomalies. Indeed, CCM theory provides a simple explanation, which involves the embodied spirit’s ability (and willingness) to adapt to various individual physical challenges. My job as a practitioner is to find ways to stimulate and facilitate that natural process. Surgeons change the physical “picture,” and they have an irresolvable problem when that physical picture doesn’t match the patient’s experience.

Please note: I’m NOT denying that physical “reality” has SOME impact on human health, I’m just saying it’s not the ENTIRE story. We can’t predict the nature of a patient’s experience, nor can we determine what therapies will prove necessary, from a physical picture alone.

I’ve used acupuncture and Chinese herbs to help LOTS of individuals avoid surgeries that their medical doctors had thought necessary. Many of my patients try Chinese medicine BEFORE submitting to various modern medical treatments, because the ancient therapies seek to stimulate the patient’s own healing process rather than controlling its expression of distress. It turns out that physical pictures are just that, and the embodied spirit has its own potential for healing. Perhaps medical scientists should research optimizing THAT, rather than demeaning it as placebo.